The best cheap alternatives to expensive software

Startups and small businesses have small budgets and big IT needs. Luckily there are plenty of cheap alternatives to expensive software available to help.

piggy bank on a laptop: cheap alternatives to expensive software

Starting a business without a website, email address and basic office software is pretty much impossible. If you then want to design a brochure, back up your data and maybe do a bit of image editing then all of a sudden software alone has probably eaten every spare penny you have.

Well-known brands of software like Microsoft and Adobe are definitely feature-rich, but when you’re just starting out a bit of basic functionality is all you really need, and there are plenty of cheap alternatives to expensive software that give you just that.

The cloud cuts costs

Before we get on to a list of lesser-known names and free alternatives to expensive software, it’s worth looking at what the cloud has done to make professional software more affordable for small business.

The increase in remote working and cloud-based services such as project management, HR and accounts has meant that flexible, scalable monthly costs is gradually becoming the norm, rather than restrictive long-term licences. As Lassi Virtanen, co-founder and chief operating officer of, says, ‘In general, using cloud-based systems and services is cost efficient. You only pay for what you use, and you won’t be bound by long contracts.’

Microsoft Office 365 and Google Apps are perfect examples of the giants listening to the needs of the smaller guys. They both offer company email, office suits with word processing, spreadsheets etc and free cloud storage all included in a single monthly cost per user. Yes they cost money, but their flexibility means bringing in new employees is easy, and if you hit hard times you can scale back quickly without losing the credibility that a company email address gives you.

The best of the rest

Perhaps you’re not quite ready for a monthly subscription, or maybe there are some other features you need. If that’s the case, this list of cheap alternatives to expensive software should see you right:

  • Office suites. There’s Google Docs if you’re happy signing up to a Gmail account. Or, a well established and reputable free alternative is OpenOffice, which is available on Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • PDF editors. Brochures and reports often come in PDF form, which you then need to edit or annotate. Different cheap or free alternatives offer different functionality, so think about whether you need to create, edit, annotate or convert files before you make your choice. PC World reviews five of the best alternatives to Adobe Acrobat, or there’s also Foxit Reader (free but no editing capabilities) and Foxit Phantom ($89.99 and allows editing).
  • Security and backup. IT security is essential if you want to be taken seriously. AVGFree (for Windows) is pretty comprehensive and well-respected anti-virus software. Of course they have a paid version that offers a little more, but the free version is plenty good enough for a startup. When it comes to backup, Dropbox is very easy to use and the full-feature free edition comes with 2GB of storage (which you can increase by sharing with friends, mentioning on Twitter and other easy-to-do actions).
  • Creative design. This covers a multitude of activities from video editing, image editing and vector graphics. Lucidia has a nice blog post covering many alternatives to many of the Adobe Creative suite features. This includes an often recommended alternative to Dreamweaver – KompoZer – which is great for website creation.
  • Online apps. There are, of course, any number of online apps for individual business needs. We’ve listed 40 of our favourite, looked at apps for employee morale and explored how to make the most of organisational apps.

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